Mark Diesendorf’s new book on renewable energy, Greenhouse Solutions with Sustainable Energy, (UNSW Press) is likely to receive plenty of comment if the last few days are anything to go by.
His work on renewable energy is laudable and for the most part informative. But it is also rather dogmatic and driven by conspiratorial notions of how government works: something Diesendorf shares with Clive Hamilton. One can only hope this will not become the vogue among environmentalists disgruntled with the machinations of the imperfections of liberal democratic life.
I’m perhaps best described as a “competent generalist” who prepares lectures in environmental politics and strives to present, as objectively as possible, various angles on climate change debates and less carbon intensive energy options for Australia, and in particular, China and India. I make no claims to any expertise on renewable energy science but have a fair grasp of the virtues of geo-thermal (and back this with share purchases). And lately I’ve focused on nuclear power debates - currently two articles are under review with journals.
My problem with Diesendorf’s book, and for that matter with an organisation I’ve long been a member - the Australian Conservation Foundation - is that a very hackneyed 1970s style anti-nuclear rhetoric is employed in the vain hope that this will help bolster the case for renewable energies such as, solar, wind, bio-mass and geo-thermal.
Last week my university convened a two-day conference on nuclear matters. Diesendorf addressed a session and I had the opportunity to critique his views and debate a few points with him during one of the breaks.
One of Diesendorf’s main claims against the nuclear fuel cycle is that, contrary to the “consensus”, it is not relatively low in terms of carbon emissions. This he argues is evident from the highly carbon intensive mining and milling stages of the cycle and will worsen as ore grades diminish. This is a fallacious claim rooted, I believe, in the worst of the “limits to growth” approach to environmental issues and resource availability. His critique misses two rather vital points about the uranium ore’s availability.
The price of uranium remained low during the 1980s and 1990s due to nuclear power unpopularity and it followed that investment in exploration all but disappeared. This has changed remarkably over the last few years and given that uranium is one of the most abundant minerals, there is every reason to believe high grade ores will be found. Indeed, the extent of current exploration in Australia, and also where high grades are appearing in Africa, suggests the nuclear power industry’s claim to low carbon emissions, compared with other reliable base load power, such as coal and gas, remains as convincing as ever.
But worse for Diesendorf’s line of argument is this rather fundamental aspect of mining.
Uranium usually occurs with other ores, notably copper and gold - and if it doesn’t then it has to be of very high grade to be worth the effort. True, the current high spot prices temporarily qualify this, but as supply increases over the next two decades it will only be the solo uranium mines with very high grade ore bodies that will survive.
BHP’s mine in northern South Australia at Roxby Downs is a copper mine - that’s why BHP bought out Western Mining, primarily for the copper and gold (and other non-uranium mineral product). Roxby will soon become the biggest uranium mine in the world, but BHP would still be there even if there was not an ounce of uranium to be extracted.
This is commonplace with uranium mining because uranium seems to like bobbing up with other valuable minerals! The point is the mining and separation of various minerals, all carbon intensive activities, would be happening anyway. How convenient to neglect this very obvious aspect of the equation and, in the process, trump up the charge that nuclear power is high on the carbon emitting front.
Diesendorf’s assessment of the latest designs for reactors, (the type likely to be built in Australia should we ever decide to introduce nuclear power) as being just “theoretical” designs and unlikely to be viable, represents a profound scepticism toward scientific advancement. The fact is the theory underpinning a host of “Generation 4” reactor designs is rarely read, I believe, by opponents of nuclear power. In Diesendorf’s case it may have been read, perhaps cursorily, but his critique fails to convince one that he has genuinely come to grips with these new designs which would see reactors require far less nuclear fuel than is currently the case with Generation 3 reactors.
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